I AM NOT. I AM.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Third Sunday of Advent
Analysis by Ron Starenko
6There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light…
19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out
in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered, “I baptize with water, Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
DIAGNOSIS: Bad News: “I Am Not” (vv. 20-21)
Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem) : Need? None!
There’s something about John the Baptist that troubles us. He’s so negative. When he is asked if he is Moses or Elijah or the Messiah, he states emphatically, even in a self-deprecating way, “I am not” and “No,” saying that he is merely the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (v. 23). And then, to make matters worse, he puts his antagonists down also, calling them, (according to Matthew’s version of accounts), “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7). Now tell me, who needs that kind of talk? We all want to hear something positive, something upbeat. None of this “I-am-not” line, John! Moses and Elijah were good people, honored prophets. So are we! So, get with it. Give us what we need, something that will make us feel good about ourselves.
Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem) : Takers? No Thanks!
According to that assessment, it is easy for us to dismiss John, as we all want to believe that we are basically good, law-abiding, well-meaning folks, scolding John for not getting it, for being out-of-touch with our need to be comforted and cajoled. We don’t need someone who is counter-cultural and anti-establishment. We’re not going to take his negative talk. So, “John,” we ask, “why burden us?”
Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem) : Any Chance? No luck!
Stubbornly, the man simply does not give up. In fact, he ratchets his rhetoric, crying out about a “wrath to come” (Matt.3:7), how “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 7:10b). None of us wants to hear that we have run out of options, to be reminded by a doomsday prophet that there is such a thing as a divine annihilation and an impending judgment, some kind of non-being. Furthermore, the prophet John makes it quite clear that even he cannot save us, and that we are all out of luck, if we think we can save ourselves, which gives us a dreaded sense of finality to his “I-am-not” words.
PROGNOSIS: Good News (John 1:15): “I AM” (cf. Exod. 3:14; John 8:58; 6:35; 8:12; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1; and Rev. 21:6)
Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution) : Hope? Yes!
Unless, of course, there’s some good news to be found in all this, unless there’s someone greater than ourselves, whom John was quick to identify, the one who stands among you ‘whom you do not know” (1:26-27), the one “who was before me” (1:15), the one who called us into being in the first place. Who is that, whom none of us could know on our own? Who other than Jesus, who always seems to be in the shadows, unknown, unrecognized, unaccepted! Even John at the end of his ministry, in prison, before his execution at the hand of Herod, wasn’t sure he knew this Jesus who seemed to lack greatness, who “was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1:10-11). Nevertheless, the One whom we do not know makes himself known, both by exposing and by disclosing, by coming among us, first teaching and preaching, then by hanging on the cross to make good on his judgments and his promises, who, then, would stand finally and forever for us in his powerful resurrection, God’s final word, fulfilling the prophecy of John, the answer to the Baptist’s doomsday wrath. Contrary to John’s witness, Jesus never said, “I am not.” One day he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am” (Mark 8:27), already a veiled disclosure? Peter affirmed as much when he confessed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (Matt. 16:16)! Before Pilate, when asked whether he is the king of the Jews, Jesus said, “You say that I am a king” (John 18:35). Throughout his ministry Jesus in fact assumes the name of God. When Moses experienced the burning-bush event out in the wilderness, God disclosed God’s name as “I AM WHO I AM” (Exod. 3:14). And then, two millennia later, Jesus appeared, saying, “I am.” John is the only evangelist to present the great “I am” sayings of Jesus: “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am” ( 8:58)…”I am the bread of life” (6:35)…”I am the light of the world” (8:12)…”I am the good shepherd” (10:11)…”I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25)….”I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6)….”I am the vine” (15:1)….”I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21:6). What better hope could we have in the face of the non-being we deserve?
Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution) : Faith? Yes!
That is the testimony of John, the eye-witness, the disciple, the evangelist, who identifies Jesus as the living God among us, announcing that he is God-in-the flesh (1:14-18), the word by which we overcome the fate of non-being, to know God, to believe that God is for us. Indeed, by our faith, born of that word and promise, we discover our true identity, to become people who declare that we, too, have become the I-Am of God, as Martin Luther once affirmed, how we are by our faith as true and as holy and as just and as alive as Jesus Christ himself. All who receive and believe that word truly become who they believe.
Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution) : Love? Yes!
There is a place, to be sure, for saying what we are not, like John the Baptist, as humility is certainly a sign of our baptism, how we are called to be servants, like John, even “not worthy to untie the thong of (Jesus’) sandal” (v. 27), yet, at the same time, never denying who we are and who we have become. We have a dignity, a nobility, akin to Jesus himself, “little Christs” serving the neighbor, which is our common, everyday, ordinary life in this world, as Jesus is the paradigm for our living and dying and rising again. We are more than voices in the wilderness (v. 23); we are the embodiment of Jesus. We, too, are imperishable bread for the sake of the world; we are lights in the world, dispelling the darkness; we are shepherds, underlings of Jesus, advocates for the world’s harassed and oppressed; we are agents of Jesus’ resurrection, embracing a world that is destined to be redeemed and renewed; we are followers of the Way, a people who know and show that Jesus is at home with sinners, that we belong to God, having a family, a name that is as eternal as God’s. The good news of “I AM” enables us to make the wildest claims of all, testifying that the One we know now, whom we are following, is always making us into who he is. Now, how good is all that, the “I AM” transcending the “I-am-not,” the bad news giving way to the good! +